Authorship – Unknown
Like the other three canonical gospels, the author of Mark is anonymous. However, tradition, as transmitted by bishop and apostolic father Papias who lived around 60-130 AD, holds that he was “John Mark”, a companion of the apostle Peter. “John Mark” is mentioned in Acts 12:12-14, which indicates John Mark’s mother’s house was a regular enough stop for Peter that the servants recognized him by voice alone. There are other mentions of John Mark in Acts 12:24 and 13:5 and at Colossians 4:10. If one believes Peter was actually the author of I Peter, one can hypothesize further that there was a close relationship between Peter and Mark, as at I Peter 5:13, where the author refers to Mark as his son. Someone named Mark is also mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:11, where the author, (either St. Paul himself or one of his students; scholars aren’t sure), states, “Only Luke is with me. Bring Mark with you when you come, for he will be helpful to me in my ministry.” There is no actual evidence, in scripture or elsewhere, to definitively connect either of these individuals to the Gospel of Mark. Like all of the rest of scripture, Mark was handed down from generation to generation by oral tradition (word of mouth) and/or hand-copying by monks and scribes. How much these transmitters embellished or omitted through the years until the earliest known texts appeared traceable to the Fifth Century, is unknown.
Date of Composition – Likely about 65 AD
Scholars are almost unanimous in concluding Mark was the first of the “synoptic gospels” (Matthew and Luke are the other two) to be composed. The most common date mentioned is between 65 to 70 AD. 70 AD is a significant date, as that is when the army of the Roman Empire destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem (and much of Jerusalem itself as well) in response to one of several Jewish rebellions. The reader should compare Jesus prophecy of the destruction of the Temple in Mark 13:1-24 with that in Matthew 24:1-28 and Luke 21:5-24. Mark gives a basic outline, while Matthew and Luke add more details. Scholars generally believe that Mark was the first of the Gospels to be composed. Matthew and Luke were composed between 80-90 AD. Both Luke and Matthew were dependent upon Mark for basic material but added additional material from another source, commonly identified as “Q”. In their apocalyptic material and elsewhere, much of what appears in Matthew also appears in Luke. Peter, James, and Paul were all put to death by the Roman empire sometime before the year 70. Perhaps their death stimulated the preservation by way of the gospels of what was previously oral tradition.
Place of Composition – Probably Rome
Tradition, as explicated by Clement of Alexandria, holds that the Gospel of Mark was composed in Rome. If one accepts that a Peter reigned as Rome’s first bishop, such an association would seem logical. However, the original Greek text itself propels a similar conclusion, given the presence of a considerable number of Greek loan words (“Latinisms”).
Intended Audience – Probably Gentile
Mark was addressed to a gentile (non-Jewish) audience as evident from Mark’s need to explain Jewish purification customs such as at 7:1-22. Further, Aramaic terms are translated as if the receiving audience does not know that language. See 3:17; 5:41; 7:11,34; 15:22,34 (Aramaic was the local language in the area where Jesus lived). The Markan author also seemed to have a special interest in persecutions and martyrdom, subjects of concern to those in Rome. See 8:34-38 and 13:9-13. The early church underwent extensive persecution in the time of the Roman emperor Nero around 64-67 AD. The fire of Rome in 64—probably set by Nero himself but blamed on Christians—resulted in widespread persecution. One can reasonably conclude that the author of Mark was addressing the concerns of his audience.
Characteristics of Mark – The Action Gospel
Mark takes the form of a story. Mark is the shortest of all the Gospels. Jesus travels quickly, conversations happen abruptly, and the narrative is snappy. Mark does not record anything about Jesus’ birth or childhood, as Matthew and Luke do, but instead dives right into the ministry of John the Baptist and the meeting of Jesus and John at the time of the Baptism of Jesus.
Mark is often known as “the action Gospel”. It is more about what Jesus did, rather than what Jesus said. Mark moves quickly from one episode in Jesus’ life and ministry to another, often using the adverb “immediately,” the Greek word ethus, over 40 times, contrasted with its seldom usage in the other Gospels. Mark does not contain the lengthy discourses of Jesus such as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 or the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:17-49.
Throughout Mark, Jesus moves with power and authority. The terms, power and authority, are used frequently in Mark. Demons, death, disease, defilement, defective bodies, and destructive storms all submit to Jesus.
An important theme in Mark is the “messianic secret.” Jesus does not reveal, or admit to, his Messiahship in the first half of Mark\’s Gospel. In the second half of the Gospel, however, he acknowledges it to the disciples after Peter\’s confession, but commands them not to tell anyone. See 8:27-30 The demons realized who he was, but even they were commanded to stay silent). Some who were healed by Jesus also knew who he was, yet Jesus also commanded them to keep it to themselves. The messianic secret reaches its climax when the centurion said that Jesus truly was the Son of God.
Application of Mark to Our Lives – Evangelism and Service
Sometimes, we need to get down to business and not get bogged down in details, particularly when we talk about Jesus to non-Christians, of which there are many today. Fortunately, to actualize our calling to be disciples making disciples, Mark is an ideal Gospel to present to an unchurched person with little or no knowledge of Christianity. What Jesus said does not make sense until we hear what Jesus did. What makes Mark the perfect Gospel for that purpose is that it delays the question of the true identity of Jesus hidden while evidence develops. Slowly but surely, the identity of Jesus begins to emerge from the details. His demonstrated authority slowly points to his identity as the Messiah.
Mark is sometimes presented as the Gospel of the Servant Jesus. According to this theory, Jesus is the antitype of the type identified as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; 49:5-7; 50:4-7; 52:13—53:12. Mark 10:45 tell us, \”For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…” In the context of this verse, James and John came to Jesus with the request that they be given places of honor in His eternal kingdom. Jesus responds to them by describing that the Son of Man came to serve rather than be served, and that they should do likewise. Service is the essence of ministry. Those of us in leadership positions, lay or clergy, are essential servants. In liturgies, the presider, and other ministers, are “servants of the assembly.” Jesus came to us clothed in humility. He came prepared to give up his own life for ours sake. His focus was on meeting our needs, not his own. He came with a purposeful sense of knowing who he was and why he was here. His entire life was one of service. He came into this world in the great humility of a stable despite his divine nature to empathize with humanity. His activities…healing, driving out demons, teaching, cleansing the Temple, and others…were not for his benefit, but for ours.
As you read through Mark, (which can be done in about two hours or less), reflect on your role as a disciple. Again, Mark is the action Gospel. We do our greatest evangelism by what we do, not just what we say.